David Mills on Margaret Mead’s False Paradise
One of man’s persistent dreams is to find a good reason he can’t help sinning. It started with Adam’s trying to blame Eve. Modern man naturally turns to science for this, and as he has learned more about himself and the world around him, he has also grown more ingenious in finding ways to explain why he cannot help breaking the moral law. On the one hand we have aspirin and brain surgery, on the other sophisticated defenses of sexual treachery.
One popular way to excuse sinners for sinning I call the “Margaret Mead Method.” I was reminded of it when flipping through my files and finding an article titled “The Virtues of Promiscuity,” the kind of title that gets your attention.
According to a journalist named Sally Lehrman, writing in The San Francisco Chronicle—one wants to make a joke about San Francisco, but the article could as easily have appeared in Richmond or Boise or Zenith—anthropologists have found that “‘Slutty’ behavior is good for the species. Women everywhere have been selflessly engaging in trysts outside of matrimony for a good long time and for excellent reasons. Anthropologists say female promiscuity binds communities closer together and improves the gene pool.”
Some primitive tribes, these anthropologists claim, assume that women having sex with more than one man will help them survive, and even thrive. At least twenty “accept the principle that a child could, and ideally ought to, have more than one father.”
For all I know, this may be true. Every culture gets sex wrong, and female promiscuity may be these tribes’ peculiar way of getting it wrong. To put it another way, sluttishness may be the sort of thing from which Christianity could deliver them, as it could deliver the macho American male whose culture demands sexual conquests as a sign of success.
As you might expect, the writer doesn’t leave it there. She uses the Mead Method to draw her Lessons for Today. In the 1920s, the natives of Samoa fooled an ambitious and adulterous young scholar into believing that they rutted like rabbits and had a simply smashing time, and her book reporting this good news, Coming of Age in Samoa, made her career.
The book was conclusively exposed several years ago in Derek Freeman’s book The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, but modern Americans still love the idea, even if they have never heard of Margaret Mead. It makes sense to them, I suspect for a variety of reasons, ranging from a romantic idea of the purity of primitive cultures to sexual self-interest.
Today, however, we have a new version, which I will call the Modified Mead Method. This adds to Mead’s basic appeal to primitive example an appeal to evolutionary theory. As Lehrman explained, anthropologists argue that “evolution has nudged women a bit toward promiscuity and sexual adventure. In all well-studied primates, females exhibit a polyandrous tendency when given the opportunity to stray.”
The Christian, if he accepts the evolutionary claim, only notes that in a fallen world such mechanisms of development will develop things badly. He is not surprised that evolution might produce women who wanted to commit adultery. It is yet another burden of life in a fallen world.
For others, however, evolutionary theory reconciles the idea that the sexual life they want to promote is natural with the idea that all such customs and rules are social constructions no better or worse than any others. To use the popular jargon, it lets them “privilege” the primitive against the modern. The moral instructions of Christianity are socially constructed, while the behavior of the adulterous women of the tribes is evolutionary.
Sexual freedom of this sort is wired in, so to speak. It is not so much constructed by society as given us by nature. That being the case, Christianity’s “Thou shalt not commit adultery” can be relativized, but primitive “female promiscuity” cannot.
Evolutionary theory also lets the advocates of sexual “adventure” treat man as part of a class that includes the brutes and excuse what once we would have called brutish behavior. If man is only a product of primate evolution, he cannot be expected to act much differently than his fellow primates. If chimpanzees do it, we can do it too.
The Mead Method is one of the two methods by which sexual liberationists give their claims the appearance of scientific insight. The other is the Kinsey Method, which claims that many people—even the nice church-going couple next door—are secretly doing all sorts of things in bed and with a variety of people and sexes that they would not admit to in public.
Both methods insist that what had been called sexual immorality is in fact normal behavior—either normal because primitive or normal because common—and therefore healthy and even inevitable. This does not follow—unless you do not believe in the fall of man, and many Americans, including many American Christians, really do not. If man and with him the cosmos did not fall, what people do naturally must be more or less all right. Despite what modern philosophers say, man naturally (and rightly) derives “ought” from “is.”
There are limits to what their advocates will claim their methods affirm, of course. Although having sex with twelve-year-olds could be shown to be natural using either the Mead or the Kinsey Method, most people still think it wrong. But these limits depend upon a vague and changing idea (a decaying idea, actually) of what is natural. Even now some scholars are making cautious arguments that such sexual encounters may sometimes be all right.
The two methods depend for their success upon the average man’s respect for experts and his continuing assumption, despite all the evidence, that the experts look at the world objectively. When an expert claims that this is the way things are, he is really saying “This is the way things are, if you see the world as I do.”
Lehrman, for example, wrote of the women as if they were not restrained by any moral limit. I know almost nothing about the subject, but it does seem to me likely that each tribe would tell its women that they could have sex only with certain men or at certain times or places, and not with others (men from other tribes, for example), and these rules might actually be rather strictly enforced.
As C. S. Lewis said somewhere, in explaining the universal existence of a moral law, cultures differ on how many wives a man can have, but none say that he can have any woman he wants. Even promiscuity will be regulated, which is to say, even permitted “sexual adventures” will be limited by some sort of moral code.
The women’s “selflessly engaging in trysts outside of matrimony” may just be a form of polyandry, if disorganized polyandry. These tribes may have a settled moral order marked by restraint, even if they are not nearly so restrained as we would like them to be. If they are, and it is hard to believe they are not, their “trysting” is not really the “promiscuity” the experts claim it is, and not the precedent for us they imply that it is.
But the experts quoted simply assert that the women are promiscuous, period, that that is the way things are. Theirs is a plausible reading of the evidence, but not the only one.
How It Works
Here is how the Mead Method works. It has four easily memorized steps. You begin by proving that some behavior is natural, in the sense of being enjoyed by primitive people, who are assumed to be far closer to the basic human realities than we are. As the Chronicle’s writer put it:
Then you find some way to show that the behavior works. If to our overdeveloped modern eyes it looks like self-indulgence or sluttishness, it is actually a rational and effective way of living. An anthropologist quoted in the article claims that the more possible fathers a child has, the more men will take care of him and his mother. As the writer put it, “Fooling around appears to have helped our ancestral mothers equip their little ones for success—the sexual equivalent of reading to them every night or enrolling in the after-school chess club.”
Having established to your satisfaction that the behavior is not only natural but effective, you then declare that all such behaviors are just social constructions anyway and ours (the modern, still sort of Christian way) is really not nearly so common as we would like to think. To do this the writer quotes an anthropologist who studied tribes in Paraguay and Tanzania, who said, “This model of the death-do-us-part, missionary-position couple is just a tiny part of human history. The patterns of human sexuality are so much more variable.”
At this point, the case is often strengthened by caricaturing the present. That “missionary-position couple” is supposed, I think, to suggest “dull.” It can be strengthened even more by not stopping to ask what the patterns found in history might actually be. Perhaps there are only a few patterns, and contemporary marriage an expression (as it seems to be) of a dominant mode by which human societies try to restrain the destructive effects of human sexual desire and direct it to social ends.
Finally, you imply, without quite saying it, that the primitive behavior would work just as well for us, it being (though a social construction) more natural and all. The writer does this with quotes, like this one from a William Crocker of the Smithsonian Institution: “Multiple lovers, that’s just part of the life. It’s recreation, just like races and running. It’s all done in the spirit of joy and fun.”
The Margaret Mead Method, in either its original or modified form, is a very useful method . . . if you’re a creep. It proves—to the standard of the man with his pants halfway off and the woman who has gotten a better offer than her husband the couch potato will make, anyway—that sexual libertinism is natural and sexual restraint unnatural, and since being natural is always good, you ought to let go and have fun, just like the jolly party girls of the South American tribes.
This is why Coming of Age in Samoa made Mead famous. You want to have an affair with the babe next door? Well, those darling little Samoans living in a state of nature are doing it all the time, and look how happy and fulfilled and innocent they are. Margaret Mead said so. It’s scientific. You feel guilty? You’re a modern man afflicted with Judeo-Christian guilt, but just ignore it—socially constructed and unnatural as it is—and enjoy the pleasures nature and evolution have provided for you.
I am afraid this is the idea these stories almost always promote, whatever insights into the nature of a fallen creation they provide. They begin with reports of young Samoans having free and joyful sex among the palm trees, and end with middle-aged Barney desperately betraying his wife at the Hampton Inn. •
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Fantasy Islands” first appeared in the November 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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